By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005; B08
A housing advocacy group yesterday sued two longtime District landlords, saying they have refused to rent apartments to some people who want to use federal vouchers to cover part of the rent.
Horning Brothers and Phifer Realty manage an estimated total of 3,000 rental apartments in the city, mostly in lower- and middle-income neighborhoods. The suits filed in D.C. Superior Court allege that the companies illegally discriminate against would-be tenants on the basis of how they would pay.
The advocacy group filed similar lawsuits in April against several other landlords and property management companies after sending testers to inquire about vacant properties that were advertised in newspapers and other media.
Yesterday, the Washington-based Equal Rights Center announced a settlement with one defendant, including guarantees that vouchers will be accepted at its properties and a pledge to pay $130,000 to the center. The suits are part of an anti-discrimination campaign organized by the center and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
According to the suits, testers were turned down at Horning and Phifer properties after proffering housing vouchers. Testers went to buildings after hearing from prospective renters that they had been turned away.
The District, Montgomery and Howard counties and 11 states have made it illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of how a tenant pays.
"Discrimination remains alive and well here," said Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, executive director of the Equal Rights Center. "It is just flat-out wrong to deny an individual or family a proper home only because the prospective tenant is assisted by a government voucher to pay the rent."
An official with Phifer denied the allegation yesterday, saying the company has always accepted vouchers and continues to do so. He accused the Equal Rights Center of frivolous litigation.
"This is how this organization creates its own salaries, by suits," Vice President Robert Plante said. "If they want to have a court battle, we're happy to have a court battle with them. We have the respect of our tenants, and we ourselves respect our tenants."
Officials at Horning declined to comment on the lawsuit yesterday. But a report issued in April by the D.C. Office of Human Rights said the firm stopped accepting vouchers because of long delays in receiving payment.
The Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, is administered by the D.C. Housing Authority in the city, and officials in the property management industry say the authority is notorious for taking too long to transfer federal funds to landlords. Sean Pharr, a spokesman for the Apartment and Office Building Owner Association, said he has worked with Horning over the years to try to collect money the company is owed.
"We're talking tens of thousands of dollars," Pharr said. "We're talking sustained, concerted efforts on their parts to deal with these shortages."
The District report quoted Horning officials as saying the company was owed $48,000 by the Housing Authority and considered the vouchers a "bad credit risk."
Zachary Smith, a Housing Authority spokesman, said his agency does not believe it owes that much to Horning. He said large landlords such as Horning often have disputes with the authority about rent increases and other financial issues.
The settlement announced yesterday involved Sawyer Realty Holdings, which manages two apartment buildings, one in Petworth and one in Brightwood. The company agreed to post signs at its buildings saying vouchers are welcome and to include that information in its advertisements. It also agreed to train employees on anti-discrimination laws, adjust its minimum-income requirements and provide the Equal Rights Center with data on how many voucher holders it accepts.
Attorneys for the center say voucher discrimination makes it even harder for low-income people to find housing in high-priced Washington. Half of all renters who receive vouchers are unable to find a place in the city to accept them, housing officials say.